Building a Fictional World Detail by Detail

16 Sep

Recently I volunteered to run a writing workshop, as part of an annual arts festival in my area ( We went to a historical school, sat down at the old wooden desks, and got down to business.

The focus of the workshop was including concrete details in our writing. Details are so important. As Janet Burroway notes, details are what convince and engage readers. Think of CSI – the reason we (or at least I) find the plots at all plausible is the specific details. Natalie Goldberg advises writers to think of details as the ingredients. Add your own heat and energy, and you get a black forest cake, or apple pie, or whatever. This piece of writing is a beautiful example.

I took part in the writing exercises as well, focusing on our setting (Moosehead School). While writing about the school, I decided to make it the setting for an important turning point for my protagonist, Darby Swank. Originally, I was going to have this take place during a visit to Fort Pitt,but the school is closer to her home base and makes more sense. Maybe I’ll still use Frenchman’s Butte/Fort Pitt as a setting later on. Or if not in this story, in another.

I really tried to nail down the feeling of being in a one-room school in the summer. The buzz of flies, the black spider with the fat white abdomen on the green steps. The white exterior with green trim. Inside photos of school alumni lined the walls. Past visitors had signed the chalk board, including the latest class of graduates. It was so neat to see years of signatures layered one on top of the other.

Here is a slideshow of photos from Frenchman Butte, Fort Pitt and Moosehead School. For more photos from the arts festival, visit

I was really impressed with the people who took the workshop. As people shared their work, I was amazed at how many great writers we had in the room, even though they didn’t necessarily consider themselves writers. Whether they were hammering out a poem or prose, people painted vivid pictures. One interesting aspect was that many of the people in my workshop were visual artists, and I think this helped, as they understood the need for concrete detail and the creative process. I hope they keep up their writing.

Resources mentioned:

Writing Down the Bones: Freeing the Writer Within. Natalie Goldberg.  Publisher: Shambhala Publications Inc.

Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft. Janet Burroway. Publisher: HarperCollins.


Posted by on September 16, 2009 in Setting, Writing


Tags: , , ,

9 responses to “Building a Fictional World Detail by Detail

  1. Anne Dewvall

    September 16, 2009 at 7:00 pm

    thanks for sharing – very interesting!

  2. cynthia

    September 16, 2009 at 8:58 pm

    I enjoyed reading your entry, and I totally agree about the importance of details. That school room sounds like a wonderful place. Thanks for the mention!

    • LisaG

      September 16, 2009 at 9:13 pm

      You’re welcome!

      Obviously, I enjoy your blog – glad I found it today : )

  3. Janet K

    September 16, 2009 at 11:29 pm

    Cool, Lisa. I envy your dedication to the craft. I am the biggest procrastinator this side of the Rockies — two books started, haven’t got past second chapters in either. Perhaps it’s a matter of me taking time for, well, me, and just “gettin’ ‘er done!”

    • LisaG

      September 17, 2009 at 6:08 pm

      I know what you mean, Janet. I started this project eight years ago and spent a lot of time spinning my wheels and procrastinating. Then, I had a moment when I realized that I may never finish it, and that scared me into action. I find it really hard to make time for my own writing, so I signed up for a creative writing course, which forces me to work on my novel regularly.

      Knowing you, Janet, I’m sure that when you decide to “get ‘er done,” you will ; )

  4. Lija

    September 19, 2009 at 1:07 am

    Lisa, this blog is such a good idea!

    I’ve been working on starting a bookish one of my own (first post up today), and believe it or not, my header for now is from a photo I took at Moosehead a couple years ago! Maybe it has special writerly powers. Let’s take this as a good sign.

    As you’ll see from my blog, I’m especially interested in the minutiae of writers’ lives. So keep it coming, please 🙂

    • LisaG

      September 21, 2009 at 4:23 pm

      Cool! If you want to guest-post on mine, let me know : )

  5. Lija

    September 27, 2009 at 10:49 am

    I will! We could do a little switcheroo guest-posting sometime.

    • LisaG

      September 28, 2009 at 7:05 pm

      Sounds good. I was going to ask you to do a guest post on where you write, but you already did that on your blog : )

      Just let me know what you want to write about – everything is flexible.


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